Ahmad Khan Rahami's Grandmother

I shared a version of this in my weekly tech newsletter yesterday:  

Many of you are new to this newsletter--especially those who came out to our event last Thursday.  It's mostly about tech, but sometimes it isn't.  When it isn't, it's honest and hopefully thought provoking.  You're welcome to stick around and I hope that you do.

It is difficult to write on mornings like this.

On one hand, I know you're all New Yorkers and you're fine.  Even if you lived on that block in Chelsea, you're going to work today, walking past police tape and glass.  You're always fine, New York, even when you're not.  They cannot stop us.

But things aren't fine--not because we're under the threat of terrorism, but because we're consumed by fear.  

Did you watch the media over the weekend?  And Twitter?

In times this this, I cannot help but think of the speech from V from Vendetta:

"...And the truth is, there is something terribly wrong with this country, isn't there? Cruelty and injustice, intolerance and oppression. And where once you had the freedom to object, think, and speak as you saw fit, you now have censors and systems of surveillance coercing your conformity and soliciting your submission. How did this happen? Who's to blame? Well, certainly there are those more responsible than others, and they will be held accountable, but again truth be told, if you're looking for the guilty, you need only look into a mirror. I know why you did it. I know you were afraid. Who wouldn't be? War, terror, disease. There were a myriad of problems which conspired to corrupt your reason and rob you of your common sense. Fear got the best of you, and in your panic you turned to the now High Chancellor, Adam Sutler. He promised you order, he promised you peace, and all he demanded in return was your silent, obedient consent."

I debated long enough over this e-mail to get the notification of a suspect this morning.  All we needed was that name to put gas on the fire.

No one noticed that a Christopher was arrested last weekend in Staten Island with 20 guns in his apartment, loaded with armor piercing bullets.  

No TV news stories.  No public calls for better mental health services.  

But arrest an Ahmad and we're ready to turn the country over to an egomaniac playing our worst fears like a violin--a man who has no respect for the freedoms of speech, of religion and the openness and diversity that made this country great.

I only know about Christopher because he is my cousin.  

Somewhere, Ahmad has a cousin, too.  A cousin who loves this country and can't figure out how someone he knew fell down such a deep, dark hole.  Ahmad maybe also has a grandmother, too--who also had to find out about all this in the newspaper, like mine did.  She reads the paper everyday at 98 years young and I can't even imagine how she felt.

Soon, the hounds will tear into Ahmad's family.  We'll know where he went to school, who his friends are, where he lives.  His family will receive death threats and racist insults.

And Christopher's family--how close we came to all that, yet not at all.  No one cares who we are or what we believe--because we're white and we weren't born into a US funded civil war.  We were all born here, so of course, we can't be the enemy.  

Whatever darkness Ahmad's family tried to escape in Afghanistan caught up with them.  

I feel sorry for them--and feel even worse for us because of the darkness we'll turn to as the fear consumes us.

From Platform to Partner: How Helping Startups is the New MBA Track to VC

Recently, Josh Kopelman of First Round Capital announced Brett Berson's promotion to Partner. For the last six years, Brett had been building the platform team at FRC. The firm scaled assistance to startups in a way that for outpaced the resources any investment team could provide as individuals.

I got to work with Brett for two years while I was investing at First Round, before I started Brooklyn Bridge Ventures.

Over that time, I watched him foster thriving online communities, creating engaging events, and making them better.  His insatiable curiosity helped him learn not only from Josh, and First Round's partners like Howard Morgan--who is moving back to angel investing after a tremendously successful run as one of the most well respected venture capitalists--but from successful founders and startup professionals.

While most people trying to get into venture will tell you how much they know, their experience, or their instincts, Brett kept listening and learning.  By figuring out the best ways to help founders, he learned valuable lessons alongside them--lessons he can now bring to a new generation of founders as their investor.

For everyone who has aspirations to venture capital, it's a lesson well earned by Brett's hard work.  You don't need to start out with money, get a Harvard or Stanford MBA, or sell a company to become a VC. You need to not only want to help founders, but dedicate yourself to learning how to do that better everyday than you did the day before.  

That's what I find missing in most people who want to break into venture.  There's no respect for venture as a craft--as a profession whose skills you can hone and perfect.  

Here's the thing--the skills aren't in the picking, they're in the helping.   

Winners come in time, but access to opportunity comes when can add real value, and when you build a reputation for being the kind of investor a founder wants in their company.  

After everything he has learned, I have no doubt Brett will be one of those investors founders want to work with.

Freedom Means Hearing and Seeing Things You Don't Like

Colin Kaepernick is going to make almost $12 million this year.

He profits from a league that routinely disregards the health and safety of its majority black player base--so, to me, he comes off as a bit hypocritical in his public protest.

And yeah, it bugs me when a guy who has never served in the military won't respect our flag and anthem in front of the veterans who project our freedom.  Our country might not be perfect, but these things are symbols of what we aspire to, and value. In my mind, they're goals, not a status check--and those goals are admirable.  

But he still has every right to do it, just as I have a right to be a bit skeptical about him.  

That's the very definition of freedom of speech.  A lot of people don't seem to understand that letting someone disrespect the flag or the anthem is more patriotic than forcing everyone to act a certain way around it.

And on the anniversary of September 11th, it also makes me sad that we seem to have lost a lot of the ideals that represent why this country got started in the first place.  In the wake of a terrorist attack, our country that was founded by immigrants seeking religious freedom has succumbed to the most ignorant and hateful forms of Islamophobia.  

Instead of welcoming those yearning to be free, we've embraced a political candidate trying to shut us off from the world by promoting hate and division.  

It's as un-American as you can get.  

When immigrants come to this country, they have to learn about what America is all about and how it works.  

Maybe we could all use a lesson ourselves.

America is making room for the person next to you whether you agree with them or not.  


Why Kayaks Belong on NYC's Waterways and Why You Should Care

Last night, while I was speaking on a panel about food entrepreneurship, my cellphone suddenly lit up with frantic texts asking if I was ok.  

Something about some kayaks on the Hudson and a crash.

I quickly searched Twitter while still on the panel and saw the horrific news.  A group of kayakers had been run over by a ferry boat backing out of a dock near West 39th Street.

The reason why people were checking on me is because I've been paddling on NYC's local waters for about 13 years, and encouraging others to do so by helping to run free kayaking programs.  I started volunteering at the Downtown Boathouse in 2003 and helped form the Brooklyn Bridge Park Boathouse in 2010.  Given the sheer numbers of people (in the thousands) these programs put on the water each summer, if you've paddled in Brooklyn Bridge Park, or in Tribeca back in the day, and the amount of hours I've put in, there's a decent chance I'm the guy who helped you into a boat and taught you the proper stroke.

Over the years, I've heard every question imaginable about paddling in the Hudson River or the East River.  

It usually boils down to the following three questions:

1) Is it dirty?

2) Is it safe?

3) How do I sign up?


It's not unlike all the questions I get as a NYC cyclist:

1) Don't you sweat? (Is it dirty?)

2) Is it safe?

3) What kind of bike should I get to start out?

What we know from the alterations our streets have gotten over the past few years is that bike safe streets are better streets for everyone.  Streets that have bike lanes actually have better traffic flow, and 40% fewer street fatalities (cyclists and pedestrians).  Basically, pro-bike laws are pro-people laws, and they tip the balance away from a car centric city full of smog, cloverleafs and overpasses.  

Well, the same goes for our waterways.  Whether the experience is safe and sanitary all depends on how you apply the law.

NYC waterways weren't designed for boats.  They weren't "designed" at all.  They're a natural resource that everyone should derive value from--and the closer you get to them, the more you start to care about their use.  The more people that actually use the water down at the water level, the more people are about the quality of that ecosystem.

No one cares more about the water quality of the harbor more than the rowers and paddlers that get right down in it every week.  They can tell you where the combined sewer overflow points are, and which parks have landing points for human powered craft.  These types of issues have repercussions that affect millions of NYC residents, not just the people who show up at free walk up kayaking programs.  

Fixing the sewage problem, for example, means redesigning our streets and sidewalks to have more trees and less concrete--so rainwater doesn't just bounce off our streets and into sewers but it actually collects in the soil.  More trees means improved air quality.  It means serious commitment to a cleanup of the Gowanus Canal and the Newtown Creek--both waterways that have dedicated human powered boating programs as part of their advocacy groups. 

I have also seen firsthand how much kayaking can create a sense of physical accomplishment in inner city kids that never learned to swim, or those who suffer from obesity, or in a veteran who has lost the use of his legs.    There is no other activity in New York City I have seen create more universal joy than what we see among all of the paddlers who participate in our programs.  In twenty plus years of various public kayaking programs across the city, paid and free, these efforts have a stellar safety record.  

Kayaking programs have helped the city redesign our relationship with the water.  Brooklyn Bridge Park has two beachfronts and a floating kayak dock to encourage interaction with the East River.  Generally, our experience with local ferry traffic has been very positive.  The East River Ferry crews keep a watchful eye for our boats and obey Coast Guard rules to honk three times when backing out.  

Until yesterday, shared use of our waterways has produced a safe and enjoyable experience for all.  It shows that participants must keep vigilant around safety training and observance of the rules of the water--and that includes boat pilots and other motorized craft as well, like the sea planes that land in the East River.    

Waterways aren't highways, but if you treat them as such, our most precious resource will go back to become commercialized dumping grounds for pollution and overdevelopment that affects everyone in the city.  

The Brooklyn Bridge Park Boathouse extends our deepest sympathies towards everyone affected by this tragic crash and hope that this does not affect the open access human powered boaters have to our natural resource.




Why Founders are Wrong, Even When They're Right

Investors turn down deals for some pretty dumb reasons.  They lack logic, consistency, and sometimes even a grasp of what their own job is...  

You know...  taking actual risk.

"We're not interested for this round, but come back to us when Sequoia is leading at a $1.5 pre-money, you have seven enterprise customers and you're cashflow positive.  Oh, and make someone from your 25 person Moldova tech team your co-founder.  Don't forget to tell all your founder friends about our ultra-pre-pre-seed program.  We love early."

It's easy to get frustrated and focus on all of the things the investor did wrong and the ridiculous questions they asked.

You shouldn't, because it's still your fault they didn't invest.

Assuming they weren't unethical and they met your character standard, you went into a pitch with the goal of getting money from this person, and they didn't get there.

Maybe they didn't even have the guts to say no.

But they didn't say "yes", and that was the goal, so that's a failure.  It doesn't pay to look at it any other way--and I think too many founders focus on the investor as the problem versus their pitch or their company.

If you walk away from a "no" without any ideas on what you could have done better, especially if you're consistently getting turned down, then you're missing out on a learning opportunity.

Let's not forget the possibility that the lesson to be learned is that perhaps your idea just isn't a very good one.  You're still a wonderful person, I'm sure, but your idea or company could be one that is disproportionately unlikely to return investor capital in multiples given the risk.

Let's keep in mind that is the definition of good, too:  An investor has to see that you have a statistically significant chance of building a huge company--with "huge" having specific definitions most likely in the hundreds of millions of dollars in enterprise value.

There are a lot of "good" ideas out there that don't have that much potential or don't have a very strong chance of getting there.

Getting an investment is very difficult thing.  How difficult?  Well, my own statistics are that about 2000 things come across my desk in a year, and I make 8-10 investments.  That's the top 0.5%.

Think about that as a race.  How fast are the top half-percentile people running?  Not only are they running really fast, but think about how much they must be training, how they eat, what kind of shape they're in, etc.

They've got their race prep *down*.  That's how good you have to be to be in the top 0.5%.  If you didn't train and you didn't finish that high, you wouldn't blame the course, or the weather, or your shoes.  It would just be obvious you weren't that competitive of an athlete.  Sure, you might have had some shoelace issues or maybe a brisk wind, but chances are that wouldn't have mattered.

Same with pitching.  

Some investors will say yes to deals that others say no to, but statistically, most people who try to pitch are getting no's across the board or by a majority of people--and when that happens, you need to turn the mirror on yourself as a founder.

Ask yourself, "What would somebody need to believe to make this investment and how can I better convey that?"

Or, perhaps, "How can I make believing in this idea so easy, even a caveman could understand it."

(Unfortunately, that's not terribly far from the truth of the situation.)  Still, if you know that's what you're up against, then it's up to you to convince them on their terms.

Here are a few ways founders can improve their chances with an investor:

1) Make sure you actually have a viable startup idea, *before* you pitch.  

Pitching isn't about testing the viability of an idea--it's about getting money for something you already know should exist, can work, and will likely return enough capital to investors to fit their criteria.  It's this last part that trips most people up.  You need to be able to explain how this company can grow to a size and scale in the hundreds of millions of dollars, if not more--so if you're forward revenue projections have you at $5mm in revenues in your eight, you're just not going to get there.

2) Use time tested sales techniques.  

Pitching is a sale--a sale of your own equity.  The investor is *buying* into your company, so why wouldn't you use techniques used by experienced sales professionals?  Here is a list of the top selling sales books of all time.  Seems to me that if you're going to pitch anything, you might as well read one or two of them.  A key one for me is outlining ahead of time how you're going to use the time in the meeting and getting me to buy into it right off the bat.  Tell me what you'd like to convince me of.

3) Tell a story, don't just convey information.

A story as an arch to it--a path with momentum that leads to a place.  I can read the slides just fine on my own, but when we meet, you want to mentally take my hand and lead me to a conclusion that I can make a lot of money getting involved.  Each slide, each fact, has to be part of a whole, versus just another fact you're throwing at me.

At the end of the day, there are a lot of "wrong" decisions made by investors--but it's your job as founders to make sure we don't make that wrong decision.  That's the only way you'll win us over--not by reminding us or yourself of our wrongness.